I'm an international graduate student studying theoretical physics in a US university, and I'm in my 4th year of PhD study and plan to graduate at the end of the 5th year. Yesterday, I heard something from my advisor really hurts me.

Yesterday afternoon, I was working in my office while my professor was having a meeting with a prostdoc in our group in the small meeting room just outside my office. We are in a suit-like office so that there is a very small common meeting room outside our offices. The meeting room is very small and very close to my office, so that I can hear what they said rather clearly. Usually I will close my office door when there is a meeting outside, but yesterday I left my door opened because my professor planed to have a meeting with me after they finished the meeting with the postdoc, and there was only a short period of time between they started the meeting with the postdoc till the time we scheduled to meet.

And then in the middle of their talk, I heard my professor talking about she was very happy about a new graduate student is about to join the group, so that the new student can help the postdoc to run part of the numerical calculations, because "XX is not productive as before", where "XX" is my name.

As a background, before the new postdoc joined our group about 3 months ago, I had a great time working together with our former postdoc, who is also international with the same nationality as I'm. We worked very closely together with many of the projects, and published several papers together in about two years. Just before the end of last year, my professor assigned me to work independently onto a new project which is in a new area that no one in our group has any experience before. It went smoothly until early this year when I plan to take my general exam. I originally plan to take my general exam at late February, but until the very end of approaching the exam data, the exam was rescheduled one month later and moved into March, due to misunderstanding of emails between our department and the graduate school. So in that two months period, I almost stopped updating the new project and totally devoted into the preparation of my general exam. After I passed my general exam at the end of March, I thought I could pick up my research, then I was caught by another unfinished project we started last summer. This project is a collaboration between our group and an experimental group, and we did have some disagreement of the results between the experimental data and the theoretical simulations from the beginning. Then this project get stop-and-go until just after my general exam, we get pushes from the experimental side that they want to finish the project and submit a paper soon. Since the former postdoc is already left, I was placed to in charge of it. I have to deal with all the conflicts between the experiment and theory results and exchange drafts of the paper with the experimental side, and almost have no time to deal with the new project I was doing. The last important update of my project is about 7 weeks ago.

I think I'm a hard working student, at least in the standards of my friends in my department. I work almost 10 hours a day and almost 7 days a week. After I hear about her criticism yesterday, I almost started to rethink whether it still worth my devotion into this.

So, what should I take from my professor's criticism of my performance, in her talking with others, under the obvious condition that I can hear it? She never criticized me before as far as I know. And what suggestions do you have to deal with this situation?

  • 20
    (1) don't throw away your graduation because of this, so don't give up and (2) ask direct feedback from your advisor. It may well be that you misinterpreted what you heard. Maybe it wasn't intended to be as harsh as it sounded. Apr 24, 2014 at 21:09
  • 4
    I tend to be a workaholic. You are working 10 hours a day and almost 7 days a week. Sometimes in life we have to step back and realize there is a point of diminishing returns and we may have reached it at 70 hours of work. You may in fact be less productive by working too much. Try working only 5, 8 hour days per week for a month and see if you are producing better quality and quantity work.
    – ialexander
    Apr 25, 2014 at 1:44
  • 3
    Maybe you really are not as productive as before? I mean, it can happen and it is very human.
    – Kogesho
    Apr 25, 2014 at 2:58
  • 6
    I would also advice to talk to her directly. The sentence, taken literally, is true: you are not producing so much (because you had exams and are working on difficult projects), so we need more people.
    – Davidmh
    Apr 25, 2014 at 9:54
  • 3
    supervisors are human too; they pass on judgments based on their current mood which may vary on time and who they are speaking to. I would not be surprised if all you say at all time should be taken at face value by someone eavesdropping? :-)
    – chris
    Apr 26, 2014 at 18:37

1 Answer 1


Your advisor said, in the context of a conversation on a new student picking up some of the workload in the lab,

xslittlegrass is not productive as before

and you seem to have interpreted this as a personal criticism, i.e.,

xslittlegrass is not working hard enough. I'm disappointed with xslittlegrass's performance

I question this interpretation. Your advisor is eager for the new student to arrive because she recognizes that there is a lot of work to be done on the current projects in the lab, and that your attention is on other things right now - hence your low productivity. That's not necessarily a bad thing. You simply can't "produce" a lot on "your" project right now. You have been splitting your time and efforts between multiple things: your exam, the collaborative project, and "your" project.

Next year you'll be even less "productive" - you'll be writing your thesis, devoting time and effort to your job search, making sure ongoing projects transition smoothly when you graduate. That's a good thing :)

I also question your characterization of the situation as "under the obvious condition that I can hear it" - your advisor probably did not expect you to hear this conversation. As you said "usually I will close my office door when there is a meeting outside" - so usually you do not hear meetings going on outside. I don't think your advisor noticed your door was open, thought "xslittlegrass can hear this meeting," and decided to use it as an opportunity to give you some indirect criticism in middle of an unrelated conversation.

If you are really concerned about this comment, it's often helpful to have a "checkup" with your advisor. You can ask her directly: "Are you satisfied with my current work? Do you think I am allocating my time and efforts in a useful way?"

  • 1
    that's a good suggestion. Have a casual meeting with your advisor and ask her how things are going. Either she'll tell you that you're not being productive to your face and you can have a discussion about it, or she won't in which case you can safely assume her remark was not a well-thought out criticism.
    – Suresh
    Apr 25, 2014 at 19:56
  • Would you suggest the OP deal with this directly with the adviser i.e. "I was waiting for you for the meeting the other day and left my office door open. I did not mean to eavesdrop but did hear a comment whereby you stated xxx. I was wondering if I haad not been working hard enough" Any thoughts?
    – user507
    Apr 28, 2014 at 4:13
  • @RJ It might be difficult to have that conversation with sounding accusatory and putting the advisor on the defensive. If the OP can resolve his concerns by having a general conversation with advisor about productivity, without mentioning the accidental eavesdropping, that seems preferable to me.
    – ff524
    Apr 28, 2014 at 4:24
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    @RJ however, OP does seem rather hurt by this - so if bringing it out into the open with the advisor is the only way he feels he can move past this, then I guess that's what he has to do.
    – ff524
    Apr 28, 2014 at 4:26
  • @ff524 I would opt for the open and honest approach if I were the OP. I think it sets the stage for open communication with the adviser though admittedly, different people may have different communication preferences (including the OP and the adviser).
    – user507
    Apr 29, 2014 at 1:15

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